Widely Criticized Olympian Says His ‘Arrogance’ Was Actually Intentional

"The bottom line is that the arrogance is a way to try to tear you down," says Carl Lewis.

There’s no denying the talent and speed of former track and field star Carl Lewis. Once the fastest man in the world, Lewis completed in four Olympic Games, earned nine gold medals and broke several world records. He was good ― and he knew it.

Ultimately, however, Lewis’ self-congratulatory behavior and general lack of humility on and off the track earned him a rather unfortunate reputation along with all those accolades: “arrogant.” As public opinion of Lewis cooled in the mid-1980s, he was also overlooked for endorsement deals. Throughout his career, the criticism about his ego followed him.

Today, Lewis doesn’t deny coming off as arrogant. But, as he tells “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”, there was actually a calculated reason why he acted that way back then, particularly around his fellow athletes.

“The bottom line is that the arrogance is a way to try to tear you down,” Lewis says. 

While Lewis’ competitors watched his star rise, his only focus was making himself even better, using attacks as motivation. “The better I got, the angrier they got. They’re like, ‘We can’t beat him. So we’ve got to beat him somewhere else,’” he says. “I just got better and got bigger.”

Age and youthful indignation also played a part in Lewis’ conduct, he adds.

“People forget: I was really young,” Lewis points out. “Even when I went to LA [for the 1984 Summer Olympics], I’d only been 23 one month. Understanding why these people had such vitriol, it just didn’t make sense to me. So, in a lot of ways, I said, ‘Well, I’ll show you,’ like a lot of young kids would do.”

Though it may have seemed like Lewis didn’t care how people viewed him, he asserts that he wasn’t immune to the criticism.

“That took its toll emotionally. I wouldn’t say I was depressed; I was beat down,” he says.

When Lewis retired from track and field in 1997, he describes the feeling as “half a crash, half excitement.” Then 36, Lewis let loose  ― he got another earring, got his first tattoo and grew out his hair into dreadlocks.

“It was fun,” Lewis says. “I said, ‘You know, I never lived my twenties, huh? Let me live my twenties.’”

As for his reputation, Lewis says he let go of his resentment a long time ago. 

“I got to a point where I had to forgive everyone and move on in my life, or else that was going to take me down,” Lewis says. “My life has moved on, and it’s great. I mean, I get up every day just saying, ‘Are you kidding me? Look at the life I’ve lived.’” 

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Vintage Photos From 1896 Olympic Games